In the mood for Vietnamese food, coffee and a vibrant atmosphere? This new place is playing your Nam Song.
If you’ve turned that corner where Merrion Street meets New Briggate, you might just have spotted a new opening in town. Nam Song occupies a prime spot in an area filled with bars, but crucially, it’s the first Vietnamese restaurant in that particular neck of the woods – and one of the few restaurants in what’s definitely a drinking district. It’s a sprightly place, and a chameleon too, opening for breakfast, serving up lunch and then inviting you for dinner in the evening.
This is the third Nam Song. It’s their Leeds debut with the first two branches over the border in Sheffield. They’re all the work of Jim and Melissa Rose, a husband-and-wife team who wanted to capture the essence of their gap year tour of Vietnam. “We were in Southeast Asia for the best six months of our lives,” Jim told us. “The places, the food, the drink, the scenery, it’s an incredible country. And that’s what Nam Song is, it’s trying to represent what Vietnam meant to us.”
They’ve done that both with the décor (a traveller vibe with cushioned seating on the floor, bright orange everywhere you look) and by serving up the coffee that sowed the seed of the idea. ‘Phin’ filter coffee is a dark-roasted brew served with sweetened condensed milk that delivers a drink Jim describes as ‘caramelly and chocolatey’. Even reluctant coffee-drinker Melissa fell in love with it. “That was on the first day and we joked about how it’d be fun if we opened up a coffee shop when we got back,” Jim explained.
The Roses returned from Vietnam at the start of 2016 and started on their mission straight away. They worked at an independent coffee shop to learn the trade, while writing a business plan and saving for their own shop. From there, Nam Song Caphe in Sheffield was born, but the Leeds branch is a completely different beast. It’s twice the size of their Sheffield shops, and while they are all about the coffee, Leeds is a restaurant and bar as well. After scouting in Headingley, they fell in love with the Merrion Street location.
Pop in for morning breakfast and you’ll discover that Vietnamese street food classic, Bánh Mì, reimagined as a fry up. Sweet chilli sausage, sriracha fried eggs, bacon, beef and twice-fried tofu will transport you thousands of miles away from your usual greasy spoons. Vegan and veggie options are on offer too, and there’s a kids’ menu that’s great way to introduce the little ones to new flavours. Their noodles and Bánh Mì are child-friendly takes on staples with the spicing dialled down.
The daytime food menu hits all the right notes, with forthright Vietnamese flavours and a handful of dishes that show off the kitchen at its best. The Nuoc Cham wings are so addictive they should come with a government warning – that sweet, citrussy, garlicky glaze invites you to suck your fingers clean. They use triple-jointed wings, meatier than the norm, so you can really dig in. Summer Rolls come stuffed with chicken, tofu or prawns, pungent with coriander and a dipping sauce you’ll want to scoop up every last atom of.
The Phò is served from noon, with a chicken or vegan broth arriving loaded with spring onions, Thai basil, chillies, mint, rice noodles, beansprouts and that all-important Nuoc Cham seasoning. With mushrooms, ginger tofu, chicken, beef or prawns as the protein, it’s a blistering bowlful that more than passes the slurp test. Healthy and gluten free, it’s a guilt-free feed. Another virtuous option is the Bún noodle salad, with melting, deeply flavoured Nam Song pork shoulder a winning topping.
There’s a freshness and zing to the evening menu, with Com Tâm Broken Rice dishes bolstering the daytime offering. It’s an area they’re planning to build on, but for now, the Thit Kho Thom is a winner, with sweet, caramelised pork belly, pineapple and garlicky greens tumbling over the rice. If you’re vegan, give the Ca Ri Chay Curry a go, rich with butternut squash, sweet potato and coconut sauce lifted with kaffir lime leaf, it’s a must-try, made all the more tempting by the texture and crunch of their sesame rice crackers.
An Asian-themed drinks menu aims to transport you to foreign climes. There’s Tiger Beer on draught, with Saigon and Hanoi in bottles, but the drink menu is distinctly cocktail-focused. A dozen concoctions all draw their inspiration from Southeast Asia, like the Phòjito, which updates the classic Mojito with elements you’d use to make Phò – lemongrass, kaffir lime and ginger. If you love their coffee but want something stronger, the Longevity is their take on the White Russian, one that uses the same condensed milk they put in their coffees.
There’s a sense of fun about Nam Song that is wholly intentional. As you walk past, the big open windows lure you in – the room is festooned with lanterns, posters and that ubiquitous orange. The walls are decorated with Instagram photos of people who’ve been to Vietnam – another attempt to bottle the magic of the country. And then, of course, there are the unusual seating arrangements. “People love the excitement of going in somewhere and being able to sit on cushions on the floor,” laughed Jim. “It’s something you can’t get anywhere else.”
Nam Song, 57-59 Merrion Street, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS2 8JD.